In Australia at any time about 1 million people on temporary residence visas with rights to work.
The Australian government’s fair work ombudsman says it has uncovered “persistent” underpayment of Korean workers in Australia. Korean students and workers are lured to Australia with promises of sun and fun, good, well-paying jobs, a chance to study or a working holiday. Instead, they find themselves housed in overcrowded hovels, indentured to labour in construction, late-night cleaning, or restaurants, under brutal conditions and for as little as $9 an hour. In many cases, workers have no contract, and no idea for whom they are ultimately working. In others, workers have their passports seized so they cannot leave.
Prof Allan Fels, the head of the government’s newly established migrant workers taskforce, told the Guardian that exploitation of migrant workers in Australia was “systemic … in that it is deeply embedded in the practices of some businesses”.
The nascent Korean Workers Union aims to protect Korean migrant workers from the systemic abuse he says has exploited, and continues to exploit, thousands, and to inform new workers of their rights.
Joe Haln, Korean Workers Union, explains, “Agents are closely connected with the exploiters themselves, and everything is organised, right from the beginning. When people arrive at the airport there is somebody there to take them and put them in a van and take them to accommodation. It is accommodation, but it is like a slave camp. They are put in a room, seven or eight people to a room, to sleep, and then they are woken up very early in the morning and driven to the building site, they don’t even know where they are, they don’t know who they are working for, and they are made to start working. These are like forced labour camps, it is like slave labour, these people aren’t free at all.” Haln said migrant workers have had their passports taken from them. They are not given employment contracts, and there is no agreement on conditions or rates of pay. The face exorbitant deductions from the money that they are paid for rent, food, or other expenses. He says workers are often kept in bleak conditions, crowded into already-overfull houses, especially in the Sydney suburbs of Strathfield and Lidcombe. Animals should not be kept like this, let alone people. This is a cruelty, this is a brutality.”
Many of the Korean workers in Australia are employed on construction sites, building residential apartments or office blocks, or by cleaning companies who have contracts to clean city offices overnight. Others take jobs in restaurants across the city. For many of those in construction, they work in jobs they are not properly trained for, and without protective equipment. Should they be injured, or seek to complain, they find themselves in a labyrinthine maze of contractors and subcontractors, a chain to which there is no apparent end. “There is no paperwork, no contract,” Haln said. “People don’t even know who they are working for, so they don’t know who to complain to. Nobody takes any responsibility.”
Others, particularly students studying in Australia, find jobs through the Korean local media, where jobs are advertised in Korean without any reference to award rates, or conditions. Some openly advertise pay rates as low as $12 an hour. The national minimum wage in Australia is $17.70 an hour. Student visa-holders in Australia are restricted to working 40 hours a fortnight during term - but are often compelled by employers to work far beyond that quota, and often at massively depressed rates of pay. Students find themselves compromised and, essentially, trapped: if they complain, or refuse to keep working, they are dismissed instantly, and they are unable to take their case to authorities because they know they are in breach of their visa conditions, and risk having their right to stay in Australia cancelled altogether. “Sometimes the employer says, ‘I will report you to immigration and you will be deported.’ There is nothing these people can do. They are very afraid,” Haln said.
We work like slaves, always ‘quick, quick, quick’. And we have no time to eat lunch, or dinner, or go to the toilet” - Esther Kim, chef